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The Creative Multiplicity of Comics
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The Creative Multiplicity of Comics

Umělec magazine 2003/3


Ana Merinová | theory | en cs

"The comic is a narrative and visual art form capable not only of showing the expressive voice of its creator but of constructing elaborate visual connections that can represent or challenge, among other things, the reality of the present, memory, myths, the subconscious, identity, and culture. Arising at the end of the 19th century, the comic has been able to adapt its expressive possibilities to the different times and places where it has developed. It has found accommodation in the ephemeral space of the newspaper, through strips and political cartoons, and it has attained permanence as an object in the form of
comic books and graphic novels.
How should we understand comics in the postmodern world? In the United States, there is a tendency to associate comics with superheroes (Marvel or DC). Themes in these traditional comics rely on the dynamic between good and evil and focus primarily on the entertainment of children and teenagers. But comics also belong to a much larger
creative and cultural dimension. They are engaged in deep and intense explorations, at times more so than any other visual art space. Since the 1960s, creators of comics have sought to insert new and multiple spaces into the comic landscape, departing radically from the superhero formula and constructing adult narrative voices. They brought an underground perspective to elaborate questions confronting social reality. Authors such as Robert Crumb, Justin Green, Frank Stack, and Gilbert Shelton offered satirical voices that poked fun at religion and the conservative American values of their times. They developed counter culture comics whose narrations went against the establishment, whose perspectives fought the unfair system and made readers look with critical eyes. Sex also became an avenue for the artist to represent his hidden desires, especially in Crumb’s construction of women. And women, in turn, as creators as well as newly empowered characters, defined the future of comics in the 1980s and 1990s by throwing off their role as objects of sexual desire and expanding the themes of representation.

When men learn to be women by making comics

Gary Groth, the editor and publisher of The Comics Journal as well as publisher and owner with Kim Thompson of Fantagraphics Books, remembers clearly when he saw the work of the Hernandez Brothers for the first time: “I received a copy of Love & Rockets #1 in the mail straight from the publishers in (I think) late 1981. I was so taken by it that I wrote a rave review of it for The Comics Journal, and must’ve sent them back a note of thanks. In short order, I offered to publish it for them, they readily agreed, and we’ve been doing it for twenty years now.” This decision to publish the work of these two brothers marks the beginning of the alternative comics movement in the United States.
Love and Rockets #1 was a comic created and self-published by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, with input from an older brother, Mario, and financial support from their younger brother Ismael. They offered stories about people, mostly women, confronting a “transculturate” reality and searching for themselves within it — an approach whose potential Groth recognized when he took over the publishing and editing duties:
“Their work was, above everything else, liberating. Although you could detect influences here and there, their work was sui generis. Both Gilbert and Jaime had what I considered an unselfconscious and, uncharacteristically for the world of comics, healthy attitude about sex. It was the first comic that I remember seeing that didn’t view sex as a taboo to be smashed, but as a natural part of life.”
That representation of sex in a natural manner, through the eyes and the voices of female characters, is what made these
stories revolutionary in both narrative and visual ways. Their work allowed a new mode for understanding femininity and opened a field in comics where the gender of the
author became irrelevant to articulating the narration with expressive intensity. Gilbert and Jaime’s stories reflect, on a deep level, their own mixed heritage as children born and raised in America whose parents emigrated from Mexico. Their works incorporate the oral storytelling tradition of Latin American culture and mix it with their own love of comics and punk rock.
The two brothers, though sharing similar passions, developed two completely different story lines and styles. The main universe, created by Gilbert, involves an imaginary location called Palomar, which is a quiet village in a mythical “South” that is perhaps somewhere in Central America or maybe even closer to the U.S. border. It is a mysterious geography that Gilbert draws, and he explains: “Palomar’s quite isolated, even for a small town. The closest train station is in Felix. There’s a public bus that comes up from Felix but that’s only if the driver isn’t too lazy and pretends to stop here.” There is one panel where a map is drawn to set the scene. On the coast is the village of Palomar, which looks out on the islands of the Pioio Indians. To the east are the Mountains of the Ciencia Indians, and between the mountains and Palomar lies La Balala Desert. One of the main characters is Luba (called la India), an intelligent and intense woman with a very voluptuous body, especially her breasts. She has an extensive family and a very complicated love life. Gilbert portrays her life and the lives of her children and her sisters with amazing literary intensity, including the temporal
reality whereby the characters grow up as time passes and as they confront their own existence.
Another very special character is Fritz, one of Luba’s half-sisters. Since her teenage punk years, Fritz has had a very promiscuous sexual life, though she manages to keep her ability to love intact. As a young punk rocker she makes the following powerful and beautiful statement: “The first punker was Lilith, who was born before Eve and banished from Eden because she was too hard for Adam to handle.” Through Fritz, Gilbert gives form to the true soul of his female characters, all descendants of Lilith. But Lilith is not presented here as a negative woman who joined the forces of evil. Rather, Gilbert breaks the mythical misogynist assumption that women cannot be equal and in his art gives women the space they deserve.
Jaime also created a group of women characters that belong to the new Lilith mythology, in which women can be free and independent thinkers. The main characters are three girls: Maggie, Hopey, and Penny, all of whom we watch grow up over the years. All three inhabit the punk landscape during their teenage years, but follow different paths in trying to understand reality and passion. Jaime’s stories utilize a more theatrical representation: his characters are on stage, living their lives in intense and crazy ways. Friendship is understood as a form of love where sex is, again, something quite natural. Jaime pays homage to music throughout the frames, which sets a very graphic and strong rhythm to the stories.
Groth notes another important aspect of the Hernandez Brothers’ work, namely, their ability to reflect on the position of the comic artist vis-a-vis his or her own art. Gilbert and Jaime, believing in the expressive power of this medium, forged an independent path, caring first and foremost about the telling of their stories:
“They didn’t take their cue from other work being published. They had an I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude, as in, they didn’t give a shit what any other artists were doing at the time, they were going to do their work their way and if it was uncommercial, so be it, and to hell with anyone who didn’t like it. They still have this attitude and I still like it.”
The Hernandez Brothers opened the door to many other artists who use alternative comics’ storytelling tradition. But they also opened another door — one that liberated women from being secondary characters and enabled them to speak with passion in voices of their own, in all the possible and multiple ways that graphic creation allows.
Peter Bagge and Daniel Clowes, among others, would follow the road of creating stories about individuals and their ways of dealing with life and reality. These two artists have built their narratives around the difficult transition from adolescence to young adulthood, and their stories represent a type of contemporary Bildungsroman. Their protagonists are directionless youths in an America that has lost its ability to dream. Alongside this fictional narrative approach is another that reclaims the presence of the graphics creator as an active being. James Kochalka, a prolific artist who deals with autobiography through personal diaries, fictive narratives, and meditations on what it means to produce a comic, has cultivated such a space of self-reflection in his work.

When women use comics to be themselves

The creative multiplicity of comics allows women to find their way into graphic expression, not only as fictitious characters but as artist themselves. This shift can be traced back to the underground efforts of artists such as Mary Fleener, Roberta Gregory, and Donna Barr, who demonstrated the possibilities of
inserting ideological feminism into the countercultural space of the comics. In the late 1980s Fleener developed a neo-cubist cartooning style in her autobiographical collection Life of the Party, in which she describes her experiences as an art student and a musician in California, and the way she and her pals enjoy their sexuality. Artist and writer Ray Zone has remarked on Fleener’s description of her work as “autobiographix” and explains that this subgenre “evolved out of the underground comix of the 1960s” and that “this form of confessional comic story, highly candid and shockingly truthful, was a necessary byroad for graphic narrative to explore in order for it to ‘mature’ into a legitimate means of artistic expression.” For her part, Roberta Gregory created two important female characters. The first, Bitchy Bitch, becomes a parody of the concept of female hysteria as she goes through the different stages of her life. The second, Bitchy Butch, is defined by Gregory as the world’s angriest dyke. Using a cartoon style and with strong humor, Gregory introduces complex themes such as pornography, self-abuse, and the perpetual unhappiness of a sick consumer society.
The autobiographical feminine space reaches its most bitter and poetical levels in the works of Julie Doucet, Debbie Drechsler, and Phoebe Gloeckner. Their voices do not stop at a simple description of life experience but reconstruct fears and anxieties, weaving a confusing path between the real and the imaginary. Doucet tells the story, among
others, of a woman filled with anxiety about her own body who tries to imagine what it would be like if she were a man. In another story the woman becomes an aggressive giant monster roaming the streets of the city in the middle of the night in search of tampons. Doucet also narrates, in a very personal style, her passion for nightlife, dreams, and drinking as well as her enjoyment of sex and her inability to maintain a relationship. Gloeckner’s stories, like those of Dreschsler, recount in a realistic way the painful loss of innocence. In her work, girls are never safe from the abusive masculine society that uses them.
Feminine voices acquire enormous force in a space dominated by men. Carol Lay, in her Story Minutes, builds short graphic stories of great complexity that reflect upon existence, memory, and the fantastic. Her vast array of female main character includes an old lady who wins an award that allows her to be God for a day, and a woman with a couple dozen personalities. Many of her stories have social content and criticize, for example, economic inequalities and the ecological destruction of the planet.
Other feminine voices in this panorama meditate on the present moment and its
social and ideological conflictedness. Lynda Barry, with her pliable narrative, cultivates various spaces, emphasizing that of childhood but also concerning herself with portraying the scenographies of those most marginalized by economic disparity, as in her trailer park
stories. In a dynamic of great expressive intensity is the sordid realist work of Renée French. Her imagery, unlike that of lay or Barry, does not attempt to decipher anxieties or existential doubts but rather creates incredibly pessimistic tales that reflect a sick and abandoned society. Her black-and-white pages depict kids who are cruel to animal and adults who just don’t care about anything but their own pleasure. Alison Bechdel also uses a critical perspective to deal with contemporary society in her strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Bechdel is a humorist who tries with sarcasm to empower various communities that challenge the repressive American way of life. Most of her main characters belong to the lesbian community, but there is also diverse racial representation in her work and an acute political awareness of the present. Her strips play with reality, with current news events, to get across her leftist ideological points. In this sense she has much in common with Peter Kuper, whose universe questions the very foundation of the political process in the United States, as he hopes for the best for democracy. Both Bechdel and Kuper reveal the fragility and the conflicts of the present moment.
The voices of younger generations fluctuate between graphic narrations as a literary space, most notable in Jessica Abel’s work, and as legendary mythic space, as in the works of Megan Kelso and Linda Medley. Abel follows the alternative comic’s literary style inaugurated by the Hernandez Brothers. She combines beautiful, realistic drawings with very solid narrations, as in her ongoing story La Perdida, which recounts the adventures of a young American woman of Mexican heritage who tries to find her identity in Mexico City. Abel utilizes two narrative levels — one that deals with the everyday life of an insecure young woman and another that plays with the Mexican historical, cultural, and political context in symbolic terms. The use of the
socio-cultural symbolic gives an asexual dimension to her comics and makes her a gender-free comic artist. She doesn’t need to tell stories about herself to find her creative voice or to build strong female characters. Her protagonist is interesting because of her human weaknesses, and the story is strong because Abel is not looking for some sort of salvation or redemption.
The legendary mythic space of Megan Kelso is apparent in her Artichoke Tales, a group of stories in which the main characters live in a land comprising a traditional peasant world. Linda Medley’s series Castle Waiting is a delicate, crafty work that uses medieval scenography to recover the art of children’s storytelling with a multidimensional eye able to incorporate adults as part of the readership. Her work, and that of others, represents a postmodern recuperation of legendary tales of fairies, witches, and princesses.

When the subaltern speaks through comics

The founding statement of the Latin American Subaltern Studies group declares “in cultural production, the emergence of testimonial and documentary form shifts dramatically the parameters of representation away from the writer and the avant-gardes.” The states of urgency so inherent in the testimonial form developed not only in the context of Latin America but across the globe. Comics, as a cultural space, incorporate both testimonial and documentary forms, offering the possibility of representing subaltern subjects who in and of themselves form a part of the construction of the text. This kind of comic, epitomized in the work of Art Spiegelman or Joe Sacco, evolved in part in response to the male-centered meta-narratives of mainstream comics’ super-heroes. They provide an alternative which I would define as one of the strongest vanguards of the underground comic scene. Testimonial gives emphasis to the concrete, to the personal, focusing on the minuscule details of the lives of women, political prisoners, and the marginalized.
Spiegelman’s Maus, for example, is a comic in which the direct recuperation of the past forms the basis of its theme. The past, and the search for truth through memory, are the cornerstones of the narration. Written and drawn by Spiegelman over the course of thirteen years, Maus represents an effort to recuperate the author’s family roots from a variety of perspectives. It is easy to describe this work as simply an autobiographical commentary about the author’s father, Vladek, in which Vladek describes his hardships in Auschwitz. But in Maus various chronological moments and diverse parallel stories are developed in which the testimony of the father forms the central axis but depends upon the others for its context.
For critic John Beverley, testimony is a narrative told in the first person by the protagonist or by a witness to the events that he or she is relating. In many cases, this narrator is someone who is illiterate, or simply someone literate who is not a writer. The production of testimony, according to Beverley, “often involves the tape recording and then the transcription and editing of an oral account by an interlocutor who is an intellectual, journalist, or writer.” Further, Beverley points to the importance of remembering that testimony is a narrative urgency: “a story that needs to be told involving a problem of repression, poverty, subalternity, exploitation, or simply survival.” In its subtitle, Maus indicates that it is a “survivor’s tale,” and the book possesses all of the elements that make up a testimonial. For Spiegelman, his work “was intentionally made for readers,” although “the engine in Maus is [his] father’s narrative, a verbal consruct.” This “verbal construct” permits the truth to be analyzed from another perpective, using testimonial as a literary instrument for represent- ing memory.
Comics have succeeded in creating a dialogue with history and providing their perspectives on and interpretations of epochs and events. Joe Sacco, a war comics-
journalist, collects the memories of those who have suffered in the Palestinian conflict or during the war in Bosnia. Continuing his involvement with issues of war, Sacco
created War Junkie, a very critical and satirical comic about the uses and abuses of the media in portraying the Gulf War events. In a somewhat different vein is Sacco’s Take It Off, which recounts the story of Susan Catherine, a stripper.

When comics visit the museum space

The final format of the comic, as it normally appears on the pages of a newspaper, magazine, or book, is quite simple. However, underlying it is a very complex process of creative elaboration that is divided into numerous steps. First, the creator (when talking about a comic not done as a group effort) has to ideate a story, a plot, and a basis upon which graphic imagination can develop. He or she must be capable of integrating with perfect harmony a double language, that of words and that of images, in a sequential space fragmented into frames. This intellectual process takes shape on the drawing board, as the creator will pencil-draw on paper or cardstock a first version of the graphic narration later to be inked. The artist can choose to insert color in the original (or not), depending on the developing style or taste. Some artists color using traditional methods; some use the computer to insert color during the editing process.
On the original page one can perceive not only the creative labor but also the artisan refinement that the process entails. The creator of comics is an artist in many ways, adapting different expressive traditions to an art form contained in a book. It is certain that using the computer as a space of narrative contention offers various limitations and problems that depend on the qualities and the processor speed of the computer, whereas a book constitutes a much more manageable and autonomous finished piece. But both books and computers are spaces of expressive contention and artistic dissemination. Whereas most works of art (paintings, sculpture, and installation works, for example) normally depend on the museum space to reach a large audience, in the case of comics, the actual finished work is distributed in multiple copies via the relevant channels — comic bookshops and bookstores. Although comics develop by creative processes similar to those in painting and literature, the final stage of production — namely, reproduction — is the ultimate medium for comic books. As such, why is it necessary to display the original pages of a comic in a gallery or museum if the finished work is printed object that contains all the sequential graphic narration?
The comic as a final printed object creates a dialogue with the reader and with other books. The original page shown in an exhibition represents the creator within the context of the museum. It opens the work to another public and establishes a dialogue with other artistic expressions. Perhaps this museum exhibitionism is a form of fetishization; nevertheless it also shows the flexibility of comics and the artistic dimensions of their creators. In each panel there lies a singular creative force that connects sequentially with the
other panels. The art lover has a right to know the multiplicity of the comic and to recognize within its elaborative process, that individual creative step where the hands are the instruments that project and sketch out the comic artist’s imaginary.
A show that displays comic art on
museum or gallery walls brings to the canonical artistic space of the museum a new type of artist who struggle through a career that does not always garner the same recognition accorded to other artists. Why is an installation more appealing to a curator than an original page from a comic book? What is the public looking for when they enter a museum? One might say that placing comics in the museum environment is a way of trivializing art. However, comics are perhaps the least trivial of works in that they are subject to a continual narrative that can be conceived and appreciated either fragmentarily or as part of a whole. Whether or not a work in book form enjoys market popularity should not have any bearing on the aesthetic and expressive value and importance of a work. All of the tendencies shown here — from the most realistic aesthetic to the most cartoonish approach — construct narratives that consolidate a multiplicity of media.
We can see a new landscape of artists, including Chris Ware and Charles Burns, who try to strengthen their spaces on both narrative and graphic levels. Comic artists today affirm that their dialogue with low culture now needs to extend to high culture. They also show how boundaries are continually broken in new ways in order to represent culture. This is a culture in which the creator draws the limitations of reality in panel format, showing that the simplicity of combining words and drawings in a narrative fashion can be the most direct and effective interpolation. The art from these comic creators looks for a new public able to follow and to share their aesthetic visions. These are perspectives that have a strong narrative component and yet independent interpretations can be seen in every single panel.
The expressive and artistic diversity that comics offer, within a framework of formal simplicity, is solidified as a far-ranging ideological object. Every frame speaks to the reader, creating a narration that will always be articulated around a system of ideas. The imagination in comics has many possibilities, but will always be attached to the creator who tries to insert the reader into his or her frames. The new generation of alternative comic artists are free to represent their own notion of the real and the believe in the force of their work as an aesthetic and narrative weapon that establishes dialogue with readers and forces them to think. Artists such as Daniel Clowes, the Hernandez Brothers, and Joe Matt even include a section with readers’ letters in their serial publications. The comic artist makes the reader participate in the process of the work because the audience is, in fact, what gives the work its meaning — an audience that doesn’t need any formation other than the ability to read and to enjoy graphic expression. The comic artist is not looking to curators, collectors, or institutions for validation; the audience is his or her primary concern, an audience of regular people as an open space — a space that can be filed with imagination, a sense of hope, and critical compromises from every perspective.
The comic must reclaim its space in canonical cultural representation. Its marginalized aesthetic and expressive capacities ought to be recovered and re-examined in spaces of cultural recognition such as museums, libraries, and universities. New readings and discourse of comics must be articulated, ones that reflect on the creative dimensions of comics and their contemporary testimonial capacity, not only as consumer products able to persist in collective memory but as individual forms of creative multiplicity that seek out an engaged reader, a reader capable of making sense of the comic’s graphic voice and therein recognizing an existential depth that connects rational, or irrational, margins of creation to reality.

Reprinted from the catalogue Comic Release! Negotiating Identity for a New Generation with the permission of the



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